After the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, Western Balkans and its neighbourhood under the shadow of wars of violence of the last decade focused to the consolidation of democracy and economic development in an environment prone to the traditional security threats in the wider geographical area including Turkey, and mostly affected by non- traditional security challenges in the form of widespread informal and illicit economies, organised crime, poverty and social exclusion, extremism, often accompanied by the weakness of governance institutions as manifested in heightened incidence of public sector corruption, pronounced political apathy and disillusionment with democratic politics.
The simultaneous unfolding of economic and political opening, the wars in the region, and more recently severe impact of global economic downturn have resulted in deep economic and social dislocation across the region affecting the lives of millions of people unable to protect their livelihoods and to plan for their own future and that of their families. The quality of life for wide sections of the population in many countries has failed to improve substantially, and if anything, remains threatened in view of unfavourable more recent economic trends very much related to developments beyond individual countries themselves, especially in the European Union. As a result of the confluence of factors undermining economic growth, high structural unemployment has persisted over the last decade and have been on par with the levels typically associated with the world’s least developed countries. Poverty levels are generally high and rising, and so is inequality in terms of gender, ethnicity, and among different social groups. The corollary of this trend has been an increase in informal economy, which while providing temporary coping mechanism to its actors, has been a route to poverty and social exclusion. The consequences in terms of competitiveness and government revenues have been similarly pernicious. Cuts in public expenditures and haphazard welfare reforms have eroded social protection and worsen vulnerability of individuals and social groups across the region, reinforcing exclusion from economic and social life and undermining social cohesion.
The economic, social and security predicament of the people living in this region has also been negatively affected by its exposure to the activities of transnational organised crime. This space is the primary transit route for drugs destined to Western Europe, and a passage for arms and human trafficking; according to the UNODC an estimated 80 tons of heroin transit this area annually. A particularly sinister aspect of the organised crime activity in the region concerns close links with the agents of the state, often dating back to the period of wars and economic sanctions. This in turn undermines the integrity and legitimacy of the state, already compromised by its weakening capacity to provide public goods effectively and equitably.
In ex-communist Balkan EU member states (Bulgaria and Romania), we have witnessed a gradual abdication of the state from public function over the last 20 or so years. The prevalent belief after the collapse of communism was that a massive and abrupt democratic and institutional reform combined with a ubiquitous rule of the logic of the market will automatically convert the backward totalitarian systems into modern European societies. The newly established market relations were usurped by the former communist elites, and CSOs and citizens alike found themselves unprepared to oppose them and take advantage of the public good. Thus, on the individual level, there appeared a clearly perceived security and democracy deficit. Particularly Greece has witnessed a continuous social restlessness as a reaction of citizens’ to economic policies decided and dictated on EU level as a response the country’s economic downturn. Turkey, on the other hand, has suffered internal armed conflict around the Kurdish issue marked with normalisation of violence in the country, a polarisation in society especially created through dislocation of Kurdish population during the 90s. Turkey also faced with traditional security issues in its close neighbourhood, including armed conflicts in Iraq and recently in Syria, international tension around Iran, the ongoing Palestine problem. Security sector reform and coming in terms with the past created severe tension in the society already manifesting high degree of political polarisation. On the other hand, despite its economic growth, Turkey is also prone to new challenges to security with high level of informal employment and youth unemployment, insufficient regulation of economic activities, lack of good governance and participatory governance mechanisms, striking inequalities across society and extensive social exclusions, high level of discomfort and disbelief to law enforcement and legal system.